ONE IS NEVER FAR FROM THE BRAHMAPUTRA when in western Assam. On a subcontinent where rivers are personified as female progeny of the gods, the “son of Brahma” is an exception. The river floods seasonally, unforgiving and capricious in its course. The people closest to him live in perpetual fear of his trajectory, and he occupies a central place in the region’s songs and mythology.
In one legend, a woman named Behula accompanies the corpse of her husband, Lakshmindara, on a raft down the Brahmaputra—popular belief in eastern India holds that a person killed by snakebite should be set afloat on the river. The raft passes several hamlets while the corpse swells and putrefies. Onlookers assume that Behula is mad, but she cannot be dissuaded. “Either I shall die with him or he will come to life and I shall be beside him when he does,” she declares. Behula prays to Manasa—the goddess of snakes—who, the story goes, ensures that the raft survives whirlpools and crocodile attacks. Behula’s perseverance is rewarded when Manasa brings Lakshmindara back to life.
In February 2017, a lanky, sharp-eyed M Malakar, who had heard I was poking around the area with a camera, found his way to my hotel room in Dhubri, a small town in Assam near where the Brahmaputra flows into Bangladesh. He announced his desire to make a Goalpariya-language film on Behula, and asked me to shoot it. I told him that I was a still photographer and suggested finding a local cinematographer. A month later, I was photographing on the film’s set, with Malakar as the director. With us was a cinematographer a wedding videographer and a village playwright turned scriptwriter. Malakar’s family members and friends took on the roles of various characters. When I asked Malakar why he chose this story, he explained that he comes from a family of craftsmen. “I paint on patachitra, where the story of Behula is prominent,” he said. “It is only natural that I would want to tell that story through my cinema.”
I, too, felt in some ways that I was adrift on the Brahmaputra. Culturally rootless, having had a cosmopolitan upbringing in Mumbai as part of a Punjabi family that suffered from cultural amnesia induced by Partition, I was neither conversant in my mother tongue nor immersed in a vernacular folk tradition. My wife Mrigayanka, on the other hand, was rooted in Goalpara, with both sides of her family based in the region, between Dhubri and the town of Gauripur. It took me years to notice that when she thought no one was listening, Mrigayanka would hum haunting, melancholic songs in a dialect similar to both Bengali and Assamese—a reflection of the blend that informs Goalpara culture.
One song in particular, “Dine Dine,” which begins with the line “It crumbles day by day, the bright mansion moulds away, god crumbles in its own way,” was a lament for the Rajbanshi people—a dispossessed community whose lands were divided between the colonial borders of Assam, Bengal and Bihar in the nineteenth century. The elision of their identity began soon after, and is apparent in colonial documents. The title for an image of an elderly Rajbanshi man in “The People of India,” a nineteenth-century British ethnographic album compiled in the wake of the 1857 revolt, reads “Rajbansi. Aboriginal. Now Hindoos.” This description is both pejorative and inaccurate, since the Rajbanshis were not entirely Hindu. Their folk culture, language and traditions were relegated to obscurity, subsumed by a larger regional identity. They became cultural nomads.
“Dine Dine” had been sung by Mrigayanka’s pishi, or aunt, Pratima Barua Pandey—the princess of Gauripur, who abandoned her education in the 1950s to collect local folk songs. She was fondly called “hastir kanya”—daughter of the elephants—after her well-known song about a woman who is expelled from society and lives with elephants that crown her their queen. According to a biography of Pandey, when she was asked why she did not sing the more conventional Rabindra Sangeet, she said, “I am a woman made of clay, I sing songs for the soil, I mix with common people because I know without them society cannot survive.” Through her music, she retrieved local lore, myth and legend from the brink of oblivion.
Following in Pandey’s footsteps, I travelled to this corner of Assam, where the Brahmaputra bends. I took in the region’s poems and myths, its wandering minstrels’ ballads—about folk gods and goddesses, majhis or boatmen, hostis or elephants, flirting, longing and love, bonded labour, hunger, exploitation and the banality of existence. Using local songs as a map, I attempted to sculpt a new, amorphous personal identity. I felt that I had inherited the region’s bi-cultural identity through marriage. Like Lakshmindara, who was brought back to life by Manasa, I was born again part Goalpariya.
My identity as shaped by my marriage began to crystallise during my first trip to Dhubri, in December 2016. I arrived after a six-hour bus journey, and Robi Kaka, a friend of my late father-in-law Hamptee, received me at the bus station. We rode down street on a cycle rickshaw, with him announcing to anyone who would listen, “Hamptee’r jamai! Dhubri’r jamai!”—Hamptee’s son-in-law, Dhubri’s son-in-law. The small-town welcome made me feel, for the first time, like I was home. I connected with a gaggle of jethoos, jethimas, pishis and mashis over cups of laal cha and too many plates of sandesh. As the “paanjabi” son-in-law on his first visit, I was the centre of attention, regaled with a host of family stories, including ones from Mrigayanka’s grandfather, a criminal-defence lawyer in Dhubri, who once appeared as a prosecutor for the state when a district judge’s family was found buried under the rose patch in his bungalow.
I also made pictures based on the bonds between Pandey and the locals. I collaborated with Dhiren Pal, a terracotta artist from Asharikandi, who uses dark clay from the banks of the Gadadhar river to make little toy figurines, in a style that evokes ancient Harappan pottery. I worked with the theatre artist Basant Rabha and his troupe, the last practitioners of Bharigan, an ancient tradition of masked folk theatre. I witnessed one performance where they danced to silence at the centre of their stage. These glimpses into local cultural and artistic expression demonstrated that folklore, which occupies a position between memory, tradition and daily life, transcends the boundaries of genre and geography. With these collaborations, I tried to put forth a sensory ethnography of this corner of Assam, deploying photography to visualise the hidden, forgotten, imagined or denied.
Since the winter of 2016, I have made four visits to lower Assam. This April, I met with Rose Sarkar, the son of the folksinger and poet Alauddin Sarkar—who was also a founding member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association and two-time MLA with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—at his house in Agomani, a town in Dhubri. Speaking to him, I realised the extent to which xenophobia, masked as nationalism, has reappeared in Assam with the recent attempt to update the National Register of Citizens—a purported roster of “genuine” Indian citizens. He told me that the state has become obsessed with the notion that a wave of illegal migrants had flooded in from across the border with Bangladesh, and the local population is often vilified as “Bangladeshi.” The intention of this work is to remind us that we are all people of clay, our identities constantly changing, not chained to the borders we have inherited.
The song fragments presented alongside the photographs are excerpted from the collection of Pratima Barua Pandey.
Akshay Mahajan is a Goa-based photographer. His practice is structured around problems of identity in the postcolonial world.